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Review: Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds

Short Attention Span Review™

Chasm City

4.0

Chasm City by Alastair ReynoldsChasm City is a complex, thread heavy roller coaster of a ride, less space opera and more gothic-noir space adventure. But be warned, nothing is really as it seems until about the last 20 pages, and that's when the reader forgets some of the early head scratching and declares a satisfying "A-ha!"

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Before delving in to the Revelation Space universe I first suggest perusing the chronology and consider reading the books in order.

This is Part 4 in my series of reviews focusing on the Revelation Space future history books by Alastair Reynolds.

Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds

Tanner Mirabel is a man on a journey. A journey to avenge the murder of his employer’s wife, and a journey to recover his lost memories. But is it a journey worth the reader’s time? Ultimately, yes. Despite some early pacing issues Alastair Reynolds creates a dark tale in his Revelation Space universe worth delving in to.

Chasm City opens with Tanner, a man at arms in the employ of a wealth Sky’s Edge noble, trying to track down information on a killer named Argent Reivich. In hot pursuit he boards a space elevator to leave the planet, but during the ascent a terrorist explosion at the base of the space elevator causes it to fail and Tanner finds himself blacking out in the coldness of space as he watches the curvature of Sky’s Edge loom ever closer.

He wakes up later to find that he was rescued by an Ultra ship in orbit around Sky’s Edge, placed in reefersleep, and transported to Yellowstone, the home of Chasm City. This presents several nagging problems. Years have passed during the transit (FTL travel doesn’t exist in the Revelation Space universe). He can’t remember who he is. And he’s starting to have flashbacks of a maniac’s life . . . flashbacks that are historically hundreds of years old.

Things are not going as planned!

Chasm City is a deep book full of multiple thread plots that are intertwined in a way that’s left a mystery to the reader until the coda. This is how Reynolds operates. Early on it can make for a frustrating experience because readers new to the author might ask themselves “Where is this plot line going?!” Have patience, and pay attention to the details.

Chasm City by Alastair ReynoldsThe once-utopian Chasm City has been overrun by a virus known as the Melding Plague, capable of infecting any body, organic or computerized.  Now, with the entire city corrupted, only the most wretched sort of existence remains.  For security operative Tanner Mirabel, it is the landscape of nightmares through which he searches for a low-life postmortal killer.  But the stakes are raised when his search brings him face to face with a centuries-old atrocity that history would rather forget.

Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds
Genre:  Science Fiction
Awards:  2002 British Science Fiction Association
Media:  Book, 694 pages
Cover Art:  Chris Moore
Year: 2001
4 out of 5 stars

The settings withing Chasm City are diverse and well fleshed. Flashbacks show the life of a psychotic egomaniac as he and his small crew pilot a generation ship across the stars. Additional flashbacks lay out the details on the jungle infested planet of Sky’s Edge that leads Tanner on his impossible journey of vengeance. And the main plot line takes us through the bowels of the melding plague wracked streets of Chasm City itself, and introduces us to the morally bankrupt immortals living a life of isolation in the Canopy. This version of Chasm City is not the shining example of human achievement that’s presented in The Prefect. This version is a twisted monstrosity at the height of moral and physical decay. High technology is no longer the norm, but it still exists side by side with steampunk elements.

While Chasm City at its core is a noir tale of revenge, at its fringe it’s also a tale of lost identity, shared memories, and the justification of inhuman sacrifice. It’s not a feel good book. Not a single one of it’s characters are likable. That’s not to say they aren’t interesting and complex though. The settings are dark, dirty, claustrophobic. Chasm City is full of darkness, with nary a ray of light during the entire 600 pages. Again, that’s a reflection Reynolds’ gothic Revelation Space universe.

Here’s my one problem with the book. During the initial 400-500 pages of Chasm City Reynolds goes in to excruciating detail with his world building and narrative, almost to the point that it feels a bit overdone. Then the final 100 pages comes on in a sudden flurry of activity as the plot lines are tied together. This slow pacing early on is bound to turn off new readers to Revelation Space. Stick with it, the payoff is worth it.  Okay, there’s another slight issues . . . the revenge plot.  Towards the conclusion of Chasm City this element seems to get brushed aside at the expense of higher and more profound ideas that wrap all the plot lines together.  The entire mechanism to drive Tanner forward seems to fizzle out and become trivialized.

I had hoped that Chasm City presented more detail about how the Melding Plague came about, or how it made its way to Yellowstone. Unfortunately none of the information is there lest the reader do some creative extrapolation.

Chasm City is a complex, thread heavy roller coaster of a ride, less space opera and more gothic-noir space adventure. But be warned, nothing is really as it seems until about the last 20 pages, and that’s when the reader forgets some of the early head scratching and declares a satisfying “A-ha!”

About Neal Ulen

Neal Ulen
Editor/Webmaster - Engineer by training, nerd by passion. Speculative fiction has influenced me since I was a kid, guiding me to the career I have now, and likely saving me from myself during times in my young life when the path was fraught with a minefield of choices. I dabble in tech, game, film, fiction, and writing. These are my true passions, and have been since the summer of '77.